Eight Thousand Sunsets

AUTHOR'S NOTE: The city is Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria, however there the similarity ends. The veiled woman is not Leila and the Jewess is not Josephine. Neither does the absent son appear in any of the Quartet: he is instead a palimpsest: a fictive character I have written and rewritten in various guises over the years, always with the same haunted fascination – always driven with the same dread daemons to put his story onto the page. I suspect he will reappear in other places. For the moment this is where I put him to rest.

If a boy had a chance,
A chance with someone like you,
Would you break his heart
Make him cry for the moon?

- Icehouse

At the edge of the lagoon they perched, the aging veiled sphinx in her midnight chador and the dark-eyed Jewess, black-skirted, cream-bloused in the current fashion, watching the steam rise amid the salt-encrusted reeds, listening to the hidden rustle of the ducks (mallards and pochards all) as they flapped uncomfortably in the heat and threatened to take off in a storm of beating wings.

The sphinx's retainers, a pair of blue-black Nubians, remained precisely three paces behind the old Mameluke seats (almost as old as Fort Qaitby, she would joke) ready to remove their mistress to safety at the slightest insult from the foreigner, scarlet tarbushes stapled by sweat to foreheads, white gloves already blackened from the morning's work. They did not speak but occasionally exchanged precise glances with the condensed telepathy trusted servants acquire with time.

When the breeze began the sphinx made a hurried gesture to ensure her heavy veil did not slip. She had been the city's most revered beauty in her youth and though its citizens suspected the pox had left her flawless cheeks and lips deeply furrowed still her vanity and circumspection kept the masquerade alive. The image was not for shredding, especially not before this despised European creature, thus practised hands (mercifully unravaged, though speckled with henna) checked each secure clasp in turn, then dropped lifelessly into her lap.

Despite the rising wind the ring – a slight affair of gold and single diamond – had miraculously remained on the small table top, neatly resting in the checkerboard parquetry. If it had fallen on the damp sand it would have shattered them both irreparably, forever. Sanity can be a fragile beast. A single truth can bring the world to ashes. Both knew this, intimately, in their separate ways.

It was all that remained of her son, honey-skinned offspring of her womb in the old poet's words. That he was born to flower but briefly was a legacy of her affliction, but he had carried her beauty and his father's fortitude far beyond the city's antique gates. She hadn't wanted him to leave, not so young, yet part of her forgave him the desire to assuage his flawed birthright in the sanatoriums of the West. What she could not – ever – forgive was the Jewesses return, her pilgrimage back to the city of his birth bearing this of all relics.

Her darling child. There had been earlier attempts at children but God's will had washed them into the delta with the city's detritus. Punishment she was sure for her vanity and pride. She had been so full of hope despite the doctors' warnings. And when she held his perfect body up (newly emerged and bloody) to her husband nothing in the world could puncture her happiness. Only later did the signs appear, and after her husband had vanished into the shifting sands of the greater desert.

He had been born to suffer, her son. A slowness in learning to walk; the sudden staring into the distance. After puberty had come the first of the fits though he had always strived to keep the worst of it from her. The Greek physicians in the city had tried their best with old tribal remedies and new medicines reluctantly procured from France. Cumulatively they made him worse. Nights of sweating, bloody vomit from the toxins, his poor petal-bruised lips dried and cracked… Until she could bear his silent acceptance of it all no longer and sent the leech-pedlars fleeing back to the safety of the municipal hospital. She alone had nursed him back to the semblance of health. When he had regained enough to be independent he had asked for his father's legacy and permission to leave for Berne. How could she refuse him, she that refused him nothing. Tears were confined to the solitude of her boudoir. In body he was now a man, though he had been sheltered from manly ways. A sweet child; an innocent. How would he cope in an alien land far from his forefathers' manor house. Yet she had seen him well-educated. He was unequalled in geography and the sciences. Art remained elusive but as art depends on experience… She acquiesced. Made him promise to write.

And the letters had come, faithfully, as promised, every Thursday, steamship permitting. At first they were full of hope and wonder: a land of stone and pasture and asphalt roads. She imagined him in his cotton gown in the ward, dark limbed against the sheets; an exotic beast in a room of chalk sheep. Walking down the corridor to the library dark hairs on his ankles escaping from beneath striped pyjamas. Of the books he had read; his fellow companions – white men all; the kindness of the nurses – one in particular who looked almost Alexandrian herself.

Then the letters had become less technical and more intense. How this same nurse would go out of her way to help him. Fetch him items from the market (small worthless trinkets, books), read his favourite poetry whilst he bathed in the next room. And here the old sphinx used to pause imagining her son's ablutions: running his soapy hand over the dark hairs on his chest (another of her husband's gifts) not yet overgrown into unseemliness; his easy musculature dark earth against the foam. How the Jewess must have been tempted by his naivety, his virginity. And why a Jewess of all people? In her own family the ancient Semitic rivalries ran hot and deep. But she knew the answer. He was a gentle soul. He took people as he found them, independently of their histories. And as like-attracts-like her dark looks would have appealed to him more than the pale glances of the other Swiss nurses.

Oh how the sphinx had raged when news of their engagement reached her. She knew he was in error, mistaking compassion in his sweet way for love. Threatened to fly out there and bring him back like an errant child. But travel – her veil! – no, not even her adored boy could break the fear of unmasking.

When the letters finally resumed the tone had changed again. Gone was the juvenile enthusiasm of a first love. Instead there was a new-found reliance on platitudes, whole passages of his writing devoted to impersonal accounts of the neighbouring cantons, their agriculture and architecture; news of events as far off as London and New York. The old mother had known then. Her servants, loyally, sensing the change in her aspect, covered the wooden floors of the manor in reed mats, removed the flowers from tables, closed up the shutters, took the horses to the far away fields. Visitors, few though they were, turned away, politely.

Finally a message had arrived sooner than expected, and in a different hand. She was sorry, the Jewess said, that his clothes had had to be burnt: his mother would understand, of course. Contamination from the blood. But she was bringing something back for her, in person, and would be there as soon as she could arrange a flight.

"Did you sleep with him?" the question seeped through the thick veil from unseen lips. There was no reply save the quiet breaking of the tide against the bank, sibilant with salt. The old sphinx chose to mistake prurience for guilt, gave a guttural Arabic curse to the waters, breaking the calmness and startling hundreds of ducks into a cacophony of rising bodies. Speech was impossible for a while. The ring remained on its ornate resting place.

Presently, a voice heavily accented in French, hanging with sadness – "I felt he would have wanted you to have it. The ring." No change in the gaze, aimed starkly at the horizon and giving way to neither the veiled woman nor the bleakness of the sun.

"It was given to you in love", however misplaced, "and is not yours now to reject. Wear it and remember him." A voice of bitter aloes and venom. A voice of closed shutters and silent interiors.

If the nurse heard the threat in her tone she chose to ignore it. "I couldn't go through with it in the end. We had no future together." A pause. Dark eyes (as liquid as his had been) lowering to the unwanted item still nestling in the intricate parquetry of the table. "Please take it. I have no want for it now.”

The old sphinx raised a hand and made a gesture she had only needed to make once before. From behind, quick as coiled steel, a white gloved hand broke a swan soft neck. She stared at the nurse's slumped figure for a while before speaking. "Take the body into the great desert. Let the sands cover it. But – make sure she is wearing my son's ring. They will be married in death."

Stiffly, the veiled woman stood up. "It's getting too warm here. We shall retire to the summerhouse now. Send ahead for ice and sherbet.”